The Chef's Garden
Until recently, produce selection in the United States has been limited. As growers and as a society, we had tunnel vision and selected vegetable varieties based on characteristics like yield, tons per acre and disease resistance. Over the last 25 years, there’s been an influx of ethnic diversity and cultures that’s being played out in kitchens all over the U.S. and really all over the world.
Menus and family recipes from other countries are being revived and reapplied in a chef’s interpretation of cuisine today. It’s really opened up our minds and eyes and palates to new diversity in vegetables and herbs and greens — and I say "new" tongue-in-cheek because I really mean old varieties being reintroduced — because they stand out in the center of the plate for their flavor, texture, color and quality. Boy, that’s exciting to us.
Eat Your Veggies
We’ve seen the writing on the wall for some time. In their November edition, Food & Wine announced that vegetables are going to be one of 2011's stars. The New York Times recently reported “Vegetables Are the New Meat," citing the resurgence of vegetable-centric dishes on menus around the country.
There were some indications that this was coming. Charlie Trotter has had a prix fixe menu featuring the vegetable and an entire tasting built around vegetables at the center of the plate for years. Charlie brought Ferran Adrià to the farm a few years ago and he explained to our team that we have basically used and found every variety and species of fish, poultry and meat that exists in mankind and there really aren’t any to be explored, unless it’s some genetically modified, cloned something, which none of us are interested in. But there are literally thousands of varieties or species of vegetables and herbs and greens to be explored.
We all get that at this point — that’s not news. But it’s going to go beyond just vegetables at the center of the plate.
Selecting Varieties for Flavor
Varietal selection is instrumental now. There are dozens of varieties of beans, for example, and each one of those has its own characteristics. It is our purpose, as chefs and farmers, to figure out which has the best flavor.
You’ll see more chefs using a refractometer. It’s a very simple tool used to measure sugar levels, which we’ve found to have a direct correlation to flavor. We’ve been working for the last 15 years to figure out what we can do to naturally enhance the flavor of the vegetable through soil preparation and balance, varietal selection and then post-harvest handling. It’s very exciting because there’s a relationship between flavor and quality, integrity and shelf life.
An Emphasis on Food Safety
One of the trends that I think is coming and is here to stay is food safety. I know that doesn’t seem like much to get excited about, but I think it’s extremely relevant and important in food production and foodservice today. We will see more emphasis placed on food safety going all the way down to farmers’ markets and the smallest farms. And with new food safety legislation coming in to play, there is more awareness and demand at the consumer level than ever.
Expect total transparency — where a seed came from, what field it was planted in — a traceable path to your kitchen. Earlier this fall, my brother, Bob Jr. was asked to speak before a congressional sub-committee to make recommendations about implementing nationwide food safety guidelines.
We are excited to see awareness and emphasis finally being focused on food safety. Creating the most direct path from grower to user will continue to be a trend. Seems obvious, right?!
Empowering Front-Of-House to Educate Diners
Chefs know it’s imperative to use great ingredients, and many have begun to recognize the value in telling their guests where those ingredients come from. We are seeing farms listed in more and more menus and that’s great. But I think that empowerment of the front of the house becomes critical.
You can use the best ingredients in the world, yet if the front of the house doesn’t share your enthusiasm for them, you’ve missed an opportunity. These days, diners are savvier — more aware and more keenly interested in where ingredients are coming from.
The more we can empower the front of the house about where ingredients come from and how they were grown and harvested the more value there will be added to the guest's experience. This will be more relevant and more important than ever before in 2011.
More awareness, education and knowledge have made chefs and their clientele more interested in sustainably grown quality. As diners become savvier we’ll see more interest in seasonal sensitivity.
People often ask me what my favorite vegetable is, and invariably I say it’s whatever is in season. When asparagus is in season, my personal belief is that we should eat it three times a day. Then when it goes out of season we should lust for it for 10 months. Eating along with the rhythm of the seasons is certainly something that we support and embrace.
Earth-To-Table Will Be Stronger Than Ever
When we hit the downturn in the fall quarter of ’08 and into ’09, green and sustainable initiatives got put on the backburner. As the economy recovers, we’ll see more emphasis on those socially responsible and environmentally friendly issues. The concern over carbon footprint and fossil fuels didn’t go away; we just had to focus on survival for a period. Now as we crawl our way out, it’s up to us to make sure these issues remain on the front burner and that we think about them in everything we do. We certainly have areas to improve on, and they’re part of our focus on the farm in 2011.
Farmer Lee Jones is the co-owner of the The Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio, a family-owned farm that practices sustainable farming of specialty vegetables for some of the country's most heralded kitchens. He was the first farmer ever to judge Food Network's "Iron Chef America."